Flirting with unpopularity

Those who genuinely inspire, that provoke and that help to bring about significant change can be enormously popular. But not necessarily all the time, and with everyone. Until it is (at least nearly) completed, the act of building bridges to carry us to new territory is – apart from being the kind of metaphor that I should slap myself for -  also the art of going out on a limb. And as The HR Bartender points out, being “nice and likable” isn’t the only way to win people over or to achieve results – although it probably helps.

Today’s news coverage provided two examples of figures who undoubtedly made a lasting impact and did so unafraid of those who might hold different views. Edward Kennedy, who died yesterday, stayed proudly loyal to and protective of his liberal instincts and beliefs throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when his own agenda was far from politically fashionable. Though his private life – press interest in which was inevitably only magnified by that family name – meant that the highest office would evade him, his political ability and stamina ultimately conferred on him a real integrity and gravitas. Never the King, but at least once the kingmaker (as his early endorsement for Obama was to prove), his death has triggered respectful comment not just from around the world but from across the floor in the US Senate.

Elsewhere on the morning bulletins, ‘maverick’ MEP Daniel Hannan spoke of his admiration for Enoch Powell, a man whose opinions will forever classify him as either as ‘brave’ or ‘foolish and odious’ depending on your agreement of otherwise. His ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 earned him Cabinet dismissal and the opprobrium of the Conservative hierarchy, although wider popularity remained: a 1972 Daily Express poll showed him to be the most popular politician in the UK at the time. His interventions in 1970 and 1974 are widely held to have significantly influenced the outcome.

Others, less widely famous, can have a similar impact and leave lasting legacies, but the possibility that their passionate faith in their causes could rouse equally passionate but hostile responses does not necessarily evade them. Love may be blind, but passion sometimes keeps it eyes open. The following are three extracts from a tape recorded just a year before the speaker’s foresight was proved all too brutally true:

This is to be played only in the event of my death by assassination. I fully realize that a person who stands for what I stand for, an activist, […]  becomes a target or the potential target for somebody who is insecure, terrified, afraid, or very disturbed themselves. Knowing that I could be assassinated at any moment, any time, I feel it’s important that some people know my thoughts. And so the following are my thoughts, my wishes, and my desires, whatever, and I’d like to pass them on and have them played for the appropriate people.”

I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement, part of a candidacy. I considered the movement the candidate. I think that there’s a distinction between those who use the movement and those who are part of the movement. I think I was always part of the movement. I wish I had time to explain everything I did.”

I ask for the movement to continue, for the movement to grow, because last week I got a phone call from Altoona, Pennsylvania, and my election gave somebody else, one more person, hope. And after all, that’s what this is all about. It’s not about personal gain, not about ego, not about power — it’s about giving those young people out there in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias, hope.”

The quotes give a powerful flavour of the man in question, and I hope that – from the grave – he will forgive me for withholding three words from the first quote to keep you guessing his identity a little longer. The words were ‘a gay activist’, and the man was Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man or woman to hold elected office in the world in 1977 – and who was shot dead in San Francisco City Hall just eleven months later. (The same gunman had minutes earlier also killed the city mayor.)

An educated child of a well-to-do American Jewish family, Milk’s initial adult trajectory was conventional – naval service, followed by investment banking on Wall Street. But his need to be true to himself led to a drifting career and life that was to take him ultimately to San Francisco, where he opened a camera store on Castro Street. The sometimes harassed but rapidly growing gay community of the neighbourhood – a run-down area close to the city centre – was what was to inspire him into political life, and political life was what was going to make him an inspiration to others. (Whether or not Milk would ever have predicted the iconic status he would posthumously assume, Time magazine lists him among their Time 100 Heroes & Icons).

Milk was, of course, a man of his time. From the perspective of the UK in 2009, it’s easy to forget how difficult life could be for gay men, lesbians – and for ethnic minorities – as recently as the late 1970s and in as ‘modern’ a country as the US. (The same day Milk was elected, the city also elected for the first time, a single mother, a Chinese American, and an African American woman.) And although we think of the 1960s as the era of increasing personal freedoms and equality, society – and the legal system – took a long longer to catch up, and to make the 1960s dreams anything like a reality in even a handful of countries. (In life as in offices: cultural change is difficult and slow.) This is not perhaps the place to review the history of gay rights campaigners, and – although it guaranteed his place in history – seeing Milk as simply ‘a gay activist’ does him an injustice. It might explain the hostility he knew he would invoke, but it falls short of explaining what he inspired.

As the earlier quotes show, this was not a single issue campaigner. As an elected city supervisor, he argued passionately that the choice of voting machines for use in the city – which has a large Chinese and Asian community – should be the solution that was easiest to use for non-English speakers and for the elderly: this was an opinion he didn’t need the Chinese community’s input to arrive at either. He campaigned with equal passion for rent control, public transport, to keep a local school open, and for better services for the elderly – those he felt strongly needed to be given help, and to be given hope. He believed in the strength of local communities, no matter how diverse, and cared that their problems should be addressed.

Although he was no stranger to publicity stunts and was a tireless campaigner (his electoral success came at his fourth attempt), the stunts were ways to get attention paid to the issues he cared about. (It would be interesting to find out how many other local politicians inspired both Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter to issue statements of support for his stance on a state-wide proposition.) If it seems ironic that one of his two sponsored pieces of legislation (the other, more obviously, being a civil rights bill) was about dog fouling, as the author of his biography, The Mayor of Castro Street, Randy Stilts, explained:

… some would claim Harvey was a socialist or various other sorts of ideologues, but, in reality, Harvey’s political philosophy was never more complicated than the issue of dogshit; government should solve people’s basic problems.”

And while he was astute enough a politician to recognise the importance of building broad support in adding to his ability to give others a sense of worth, he was also respected as someone who ‘got things done’. (The union movement in the city, for example, was won over when, in support of a failing attempted truck-drivers’ boycott of a brewing company who had refused to sign a union contract, he persuaded the city’s gay bars to withdraw their product. In 1978, unions were not in the habit of supporting gay activists.)

A man fundamentally opposed to violence, Milk’s death moved an estimated crowd of 40,000 to march to City Hall in a silent, peaceful candlelit procession. By contrast, the lenient sentencing of his assassin – despite the attempts of his friends and supporters – triggered a night of intense rioting, as justice was seen not to have been done: one element of Milk’s legacy was the overturning by the Californian electorate of the legal defence argument of ‘diminished capacity’. (Milk himself hoped for a more positive legacy, saying: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let the bullet destroy every closet door.”)

Posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on 12 August 2009 by President Obama, and the subject of both an OSCAR-winning documentary (The Times of Harvey Milk) and an OSCAR-winning bio-pic (Milk), the legacy that he himself wanted to lead underlines the factor that made his presence so potent during his lifetime. Here’s an extract from what became known as his ‘Hope Speech’:

And the young gay people in the Altoona, Pennsylvanias and the Richmond, Minnesotas who are coming out and hear Anita Bryant on television and her story. The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up. And if you help elect to the central committee and other offices, more gay people, that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone.”

And despite what the etiquette books may teach us, it’s not only gentlemen who open doors for others – it’s leaders too.

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